Zackery Lystedt, with his mother, Mercedes, was left brain damaged in 2006… (Elaine Thompson / AP Photo )
For decades, hits to the head have been as much a part of football as touchdowns and chilled beers. But recently, more and more athletes have spoken out about the long-term damage they've sustained from repeated concussions incurred during games and practice.
These types of head injuries are dangerous to adults, but they're even more concerning when they happen over and over again to children. Because of that, parents, teachers and coaches are looking for ways to make the game safer. And football is not the only game in which kids can bang heads; soccer and hockey are among the others.
Concussions happen when the head is hit so hard that the brain is jolted, banging against the skull. In football, it often happens when players collide helmet-first, hit the ground hard or get tackled. Symptoms range from feeling dizzy and seeing stars to being knocked unconscious.
In youth sports, concussions are not uncommon — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7.2% of football-related visits to the emergency room for kids under the age of 19 were for concussions.
Until recently, football culture dictated that players shake off injuries and get back on the field.
Several former National Football League players have said blows to the head have contributed to depression and other disorders, and legends such as Terry Bradshaw have said they would advise others not to play. NFL players who suffer concussion-like symptoms must now be cleared by an independent neurologist before returning to practice or a game, and other steps have been taken to prevent head injuries.
"There has been kind of a stubborn mentality," said John Butler, the executive director of Pop Warner youth football. "NFL players would say, 'If I get dinged in a game, I'm not going to tell them 'cause they'll make me take a rest.' There is a certain degree of that mentality even at younger kids' levels."
But recovery from concussions can take weeks.
To that end, changes are being made. In Washington state, legislators in 2009 passed the Lystedt Law, named for Zackery Lystedt, who, in 2006 and at the age of 13, sustained two concussions during a middle school football game and was permanently brain damaged.
The legislation ensures that parents, teachers, coaches and athletes are educated about the signs of concussion and that a player who sustains one must be kept out of play until he's fully recovered. The Lystedt Law also requires that a child get a doctor's note before returning to play.
"Playing through a concussion doesn't make sense. It's dangerous, it could be fatal, it doesn't help you and it doesn't help your team," said Stanley Herring, the team physician for the Seattle Seahawks and the director of Sports, Spine and Orthopaedic Health at the University of Washington, who helped write the Lystedt Law.
In 2010, Pop Warner also altered practice, ruling that players can practice full-contact hitting for just one-third of each practice and not practice hitting drills beginning from more than 3 feet apart. And kids diagnosed with concussions must have a doctor's note to return to play.
Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, recently talked to an auditorium full of coaches from the Los Angeles Unified School District, in accordance with a recent state law that requires that coaches receive concussion training.
LAUSD also complies with a state law passed in 2011 that dictates — like the Lystedt Law — that kids be taken out of play if they sustain a head injury and not be allowed to return without a doctor's note.
Nowinski said the time was long overdue for hits to the head to be taken as seriously as injuries to other parts of the body.
"You have a pitch count in baseball because you know throwing too much will wear out an elbow," he said. "We ban them from throwing curveballs, but it's open season on hitting them in the head as soon as they can run."